Warthen: Much ado about photo ID

Editorial Page EditorMarch 3, 2009 

The photo ID bill that caused such a flap in the House Thursday is one of those classic issues that political partisans make a huge deal over, and that seems to me entirely undeserving of the fuss.

It’s not so much an issue that generates conflict between Democrats and Republicans as it is an issue that is about conflict between the two parties, with little practical impact beyond that.

The way I see it is this:

• It’s ridiculous for Democrats to act like this is some kind of insupportable burden on voting, even to the point of walking out to dramatize their profound concern. Why shouldn’t you have to make the kind of basic demonstration of your identity that you have to make for pretty much any other kind of transaction?

• It’s ridiculous for Republicans to insist that we have to have this safeguard, absent any sort of widespread abuse here in South Carolina in recent elections. Where’s the problem necessitating this big confrontation with the Democrats? I don’t see it.

Some of my friends and acquaintances defend parties by telling me that they legitimately reflect different philosophies and value systems. Well, when you scratch the surface and get at the values that inform these two overwrought, pointedly partisan reactions, it doesn’t make me feel any better either way. In fact, it reminds me why I can’t subscribe to either party’s world view.

Democrats believe at their core that it should be easier to vote. I look around me at the kinds of decisions that are sometimes made by voters, and it seems to me sometimes that far too many people who are already voting take the responsibility too lightly. Look at exit polls — or just go up to a few people on the street and ask them a few pointed questions about public affairs. Look at what people actually know about candidates and their positions and the issues, and look at the reasons they say they vote certain ways, and it can be alarming. Hey, I love this American self-government thing, but it’s not perfect, and one of the biggest imperfections is that some folks don’t take their electoral responsibility seriously enough. Why would I want to see the people who are so apathetic that they don’t vote now coming out and voting? Yet that seems to be what many Democrats are advocating, and it disturbs me.

And beneath all that sanctimony from Republicans about the integrity of the voting process is, I’m sorry to say, something that looks very much like what Democrats are describing, although Democrats do so in overly cartoonish terms. There’s a bit of bourgeois disdain, a tendency among Republicans to think of themselves as the solid, hard-working citizens who play by the rules, and to be disdainful of those who don’t have their advantages — which they don’t see as advantages at all, but merely their due as a result of being so righteous and hard-working. There’s a tendency to see the disadvantaged as being to blame for their plight, as being too lazy or immoral or whatever to participate fully. The idea is that they wouldn’t have these problems if they would just try. What I’m trying to describe here is the thing that is making sincere Republicans’ blood pressure rise even as they’re reading these words. It’s a tendency to attach moral weight to middle-class status. Republicans seem to believe as an article of faith that there are all these shiftless, marginal people out there — relatives of Cadillac-driving welfare queens of the Reagan era, no doubt — wanting to commit voter fraud, and they’ve got to stop it, and if you don’t want to stop it as much as they do, then you don’t believe in having integrity in the process.

Basically, I’m unimpressed by the holier-than-thou posturing from either side. And I get very tired at all the fuss over something that neither side can demonstrate is all that big a deal. Democrats can’t demonstrate that this is a great injustice, and Republicans can’t demonstrate that it’s needed.

And yet, all this drama.

While I’m at it, I might as well abuse a related idea: early voting.

We’ve had a number of debates about that here on the editorial board, and I’ve been told that my reasons for opposing early voting are vague and sentimental. Perhaps they are, but I cling to them nonetheless.

While Democrats and Republicans have their ideological reasons to fight over this idea, too, it’s a communitarian thing for me. I actually get all warm and fuzzy, a la Frank Capra, about the fact that on Election Day, my neighbors and I — sometimes folks I haven’t seen in years — take time out from our daily routine and get together and stand in line (actually allowing ourselves to be, gasp, inconvenienced) and act as citizens in a community to make important decisions.

I’ve written columns celebrating that very experience, such as one in 1998 that quoted a recent naturalized citizen proudly standing in line at my polling place, who said, “On my way here this morning, I felt the solemnity of the occasion.”

I believe in relating to my country, my state, my community as a citizen, not as a consumer. That calls for an entirely different sort of interaction. If you relate to public life as a consumer, well then by all means do it at your precious convenience. Mail or phone or text it in — what’s the difference? It’s all about you and your prerogatives, right? You as a consumer.

Something different is required of a citizen, and that requirement is best satisfied by everyone getting out and voting on Election Day.

With or without photo IDs.

This column is adapted from a post on my blog, which includes a lot of other commentary that did not make it into the paper. For the full experience, please go to thestate.com/bradsblog/.

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